Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Smooth Getaway Postcard From Vienna

When people find out my daughter’s middle name is Vienna, their first question is invariably some version of “You didn’t name her after that mean chick from the Bachelor, did you?”

No. I have never watched the Bachelor. I don’t think the Bachelor is the hottest thing since the big sunflares last month. I couldn’t pick a man out of a nicely dressed, rose-holding line-up. I’m not saying I’m above reality TV. That would clearly be a lie as I’m streaming Real Housewives. I just don’t like the brand of reality that the Bachelor offers.

My daughter is named after two things: the Billy Joel song "Vienna" (I grew up in New York, what do you expect?), and the city in Austria. Yet, it's mainly the city, because I love Vienna.

In 2007, I saw the opera "Werther" in Vienna with my husband. Let’s call him Mark (because that’s his name). In case you haven’t heard of Werther, and not many people have since 1892, it’s an operatic drama. That should tell you all you need to know. Werther gets stabbed, then spends the next hour and a half singing to his fiance about how he was stabbed and that he is going to die. After that, he dies. His fiance is sad but will prevail against this evil fortune. She sings about that for around half an hour. Curtains go up, applause happens, and everyone goes for ice cream. Love it or hate it, there is no denying the ridiculousness of opera.

Still, ridiculousness is not necessarily bad. Mark and I got to see a great Mexican singer whom we’d never heard of before: Rolando Villazon. He is one of the world’s most renowned operatic tenors and not without reason. It was his comeback night after months off-stage with an injury. I later found many articles about his triumphant return to Vienna.

We stumbled upon the Opera House two hours before showtime to find a group of women with portable chairs hanging around the building and talking excitedly about something in German. That's when it hit me - these are Opera tailgaters. I'm from Buffalo; I know tailgating when I see it. We inquired with an odd mix of bungled English, German and French, only to discover that, sure enough, there was a great show to be seen and sausage soon to be shared. So, we joined the tailgate party. Two hours and six Euro later, we had tickets to one of the country's most sought after performances.

Let me repeat that last part - 6 Euro, 2 tickets. I've been to the opera in San Diego and you can't make your way to the ticket booth for that amount. It's true we were standing the entire time and my boots had to come off (I was not the only one) because I had dressed for comfortable fashionable walking, not comfortable fashionable standing for hours on end. Yet, no one cared. Not even the gentleman behind me in his expensively-tailored herringbone suit. The Viennese care about appearances but care more about experiences - everyone's experiences, not just their own. The opera, like many museums and artistic sites, is government subsidized. Art is like air in Vienna and everyone needs to breathe.

The Vienna Opera House looks like it belongs with the opulent backdrops of Cameron’s Titanic except it’s real. And on land. And filled with ghosts and history anyone can experience. Gold filigree, purple velvet seats, green, blue and yellow intricacies carved into the walls and perfect dimmed lighting. Every space, whether for sitting or standing, has a small translator box located directly below your view of the stage, so you can read, watch and hear everything instantaneously.

Werther is in German, but we read every word on the little screens in perfectly-translated English. There was crowd intimacy like no other venue I’ve experienced, because everyone so wanted to be there and share in the event. Of course, everyone was dressed to the nines - except the American tourists (hello), who just found out about the show three hours ago while en route to a brewery.

The performance was one of those moments when the world around you begins to shrink. The circumference of activity defining your life grows much smaller and there is less room for worry or want. The music plays. Darkness settles into your skin. Sights and sounds collide in the house, saturating you with intertwined images of bodies and costumes, until everything runs together in a haze. Finally, Villazon gave his soul in his voice. The walls could have been on fire and it would not have mattered. This soulful connection was so real that even flames would have merely blended into the foreground. All that mattered was the voice in the vacuum.

For some time, it was just us and that voice. I’ve no idea how long. It was like being in a trance. Yet, it was at least two hours of passion that Villazon willingly gave to us. I’ve certainly paid a whole lot more for a whole lot less.

Having taken deep breaths for hours in a row while standing in place, the Viennese thanked Villazon with five intense ovations. There were tears of appreciation from both singer and audience. Villazon surely must have loved us back to deliver such depth of performance.

Then we headed out to enjoy some ice cream and phenomenal hot chocolate at the stylish Hotel Sacher cafe. All of this is part of why I love Vienna. All of this is part of why Vienna is my daughter's middle name.

Stacey V. Levinson is a travel author with a knack for stumbling upon the beautiful and the ridiculous. With studies in psychology and statistics plus a Juris Doctorate, she believes knowledge is a key to experiencing the inaccessible.


  1. if i had a daughter,i have two sons by the way, i would call her vienna, 1, because of the city,and yes rolando has performed there may times, and 2 because i am an ultravox fan, and their biggest hit, though never got to number 1 is called vienna xxxx

  2. What a great story! How well written. Loved it!

    And what a beautiful photo of Ms. Levinson wearing the yellow dress inside of Vienna's opera house!


    Ed R.

  3. That is a gorgeous building!

    Ah, opera, where deaths take forty minutes and where divas terrorize all around them...